Cancel Culture and Its Discontents

When I was in school, half a century ago, we treasured a wise, elderly professor.

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A Parlor Anti-Semite

He opened our world to critical thought.

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About books, film, politics and art.

He befriended students and was generous with his teachings and his time.

But on two occasions he perplexed me.

In the intimacy of a closed car driven in heavy snow the subject of what has come to be known as the Holocaust came up.

He bridled palpably.

Then he mumbled feebly, “That has nothing to do with parlor anti-Semitism,” and fell into a strange silence for a long time.

Several months later, seated at table with a visiting émigré Jewish novelist, the professor broke into lavish praise of the Jewish people.

The novelist was stunned and embarrassed: Jews in his stories were complex and mixed characters, rarely praiseworthy and meant to be understood, not praised.

The faux pas faded and we moved on to other topics.

Years after completing school I was saddened to learn our professor had died.  He had given us so much.

Decades later, when the internet arrived, I searched his name.

With shock, disappointment, and the relief that comes when cognitive dissonance is broken at last, I learned the fact that would reconcile my two odd experiences with him.

The professor had once been what he sought to defend on that snowy day: a "parlor anti-Semite".

And though he could neither confess nor repent he would attempt to distinguish polite and impolite anti-Semitism and to atone, as he did with the visiting novelist.

The awkwardness of both the distinction and the atonement revealed the depth of his shame.

Because he knew that parlor anti-Semitism and the Holocaust were linked.

And that his flattery of the Jews was no more welcome than his previous denigration.

I will never believe our professor was any less than a great man.

He was born to advantage and raised amidst the "polite" anti-Semitism of the day and accepted it as a given.

As a young intellectual he flirted with communism and the socialism of fools: anti-Semitism.

When he matured he wisely abandoned both and wished only to bury that past.

The professor never treated his Jewish students differently than his non-Jewish students and welcomed anyone who wished to learn and grow.  We did both.

Were he alive today I would fear for him.

Might he be "outed" by the campus "cancel culture"?

Called a racist and an anti-Semite?

Would he be sacked, disgraced, shunned and dispatched by self-righteous undergraduates who refused to look past his long-ago errors of judgment to his true worth as a person, a thinker, a scholar, a teacher?

"Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it." - Santayana

The History Of Cancel Culture

Cancel culture always exists. In every generation.

Because each generation passes through childhood, where cancel culture reigns supreme.

Mocking, shunning and violence.

The kids and the teachers will tell you: no place meaner than middle school.

Lord of the Flies

Mean Girls

College is for learning, for outgrowing cancel culture, along with so many other childish ways.

But in times of turmoil, with modern technology, cancel culture can spread like a virus and engulf a civilization.

"The road to Hell is paved with good intentions." - Unknown

“Cancel culture centers” have flourished throughout history.

If tyrants fall we learn the dread names of their cancel culture centers:

  • Auschwitz
  • The Gulag Archipelago
  • Treblinka
  • Lubyanka

Before the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution some colonists cancelled their own on these very shores.

Salem, Massachusetts.

No, the “witches” weren’t burned.

They were hanged or pressed to death.

"Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." - Jesus of Nazareth

If you think people abhor killing, think again.

Primates kill.

Popular entertainment has always featured killing.

And killers are admired.

Mack the Knife does not lack for lovers.

And mass killers--Stalin, Mao and Hitler--are still revered by millions.

Self-righteous killers can be the worst.

As the hard-core movie communist Ninotchka (1939) proclaims: “We will have fewer but better Russians.”

Revelations of the Gulag have rendered Billy Wilder’s witty line ever more bitter over time.

"To err is human, to forgive, divine.” - Alexander Pope

Common Features

Every cancel culture has common features:

  • No laws.
  • No rules.
  • And no fair trial.
  • No defense.
  • With no mercy.
  • No forgiveness.
  • No acknowledgement of human frailty except to exploit it.
  • Finally, no redemption.

The Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution are a nanosecond old in evolutionary time.

They are both precious and vulnerable.

The truths, the freedoms, the guarantees, particularly the freedom from ex post facto laws, secret trials, cruel or unusual punishment, are all anathema to tyrants and extremists, for these are the tools of their trades.

Cancel culture is a throwback, to what our forebears risked or gave their lives to prevent.

If you say cancel culture does not kill but merely censures, ask someone who has lost their job, their career, their livelihood, their good name, whether death might not be better.

There is an answer to cancel culture.

Our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution and our Bill of Rights.

And the following quote, variously attributed:

"I may disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it."